not but nothing other: African-American Portrayals, 1930s to Today

Aaron Douglas (1899-1979)
Alta, 1936

Aaron Douglas and Alta Mae Sawyer had been married ten years when she sat for this portrait in 1936. By this time, Douglas was well-established as the leading visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance, while Alta herself was an admired educator and, with her husband, very much part of the elite Black intellectual and social circles that congregated at their prestigious Edgecombe Avenue address in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Upper Manhattan. Her portrait depicts her half-length and seated, most likely in this home they shared.

Although he frequently worked in a modern style, Douglas’s portraiture—like this example—tends to be more traditional and naturalistic. Nevertheless, we might note how the cool greens of the staid landscape painting hanging behind Alta contrast with the vivid red color and vibrant floral pattern of her blouse, testifying to the vitality of the woman Douglas would honor, after her death, as “the most dynamic force in my life, my inspiration, my encouragement.”

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